NEW YORK -- There's Anthony Rizzo, standing in front of his locker at Yankee Stadium, looking indestructible. He's holding a bat, one doing damage to opposing pitchers at a rate that has the rest of the league taking notice. He's 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, chiseled, with the kind of good looks that led MTV to name him the reigning "MLB Crush Monday" this week.
He'll never have to worry about money again. The Cubs signed him last May to a seven-year extension that guarantees him at least $41 million, and could be worth much as $73 million should the team exercise its 2020 and 2021 options. On a blustery April day, Rizzo was certainly having fun, taking a leisurely walk down the tunnel to the dugout, peeking out to see whether he'd be taking batting practice outside, laughing about the weather and the long day ahead with teammates.
But you could also see Rizzo doing something few his age, or really any age, generally do. He'd take extra moments throughout his morning, and drink it all in. He wasn't just aware of his first game at Yankee Stadium in some rote way, asked by a reporter. He brought it up. He savored it.
That indestructible first baseman, built with granite and so lithe around the base that he's a Gold Glove waiting to happen, talked about playing the field this way to me: "Defense is something I can control... during the game, it's my safe place. Nothing bad can happen to me there."
So many wonderful things have happened to Anthony Rizzo, 24-year-old. But enough else has happened to Rizzo that he's going to relish these successes a little bit more, work a little harder to get them. You wouldn't know it to see him now, finally drawing national attention as the planned centerpiece of this Cubs team for the rest of the decade, but Rizzo understands how fleeting it can all be.
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Back in April 2008, Rizzo was just a year out of high school and a childhood in Parkland, Fla., that sounds downright idyllic, from the loving support of his parents to backyard baseball games. Then he received the startling diagnosis: limited state classical Hodgkin's lymphoma. Around the same time, his grandmother also received a cancer diagnosis. Rizzo beat it; his grandmother didn't. But the result was the Anthony Rizzo Family Foundation, which sponsors events, raises money and -- probably its best calling card -- allows Rizzo to visit those afflicted with the disease.
Rizzo is six years removed from his diagnosis, and what's followed hasn't been the straight path to stardom many expected. A player of his talents usually isn't traded by an organization, but the Red Sox dealt him to the Padres in 2010 as the centerpiece of the Adrian Gonzalez deal. Two years later, the Padres traded him in a four-player deal to obtain Andrew Cashner. For Cubs GM Jed Hoyer, who had been the GM in San Diego when Rizzo was traded there and an assistant in Boston when Rizzo was drafted, it was the third time a team of his had acquired the first baseman.
Even his 2013 didn't work out precisely the way he or the Cubs had hoped. Rizzo's season line of .233/.323/.419 was a tick above league average, but hardly the kind of production the Cubs needed from him at first base, even with his elite defense. On a Cubs team without many ready answers to the larger question of what the next playoff contender on the North Side will look like, Rizzo received plenty of scrutiny, particularly his .625 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
The underlying numbers suggest that Rizzo's 2013 southpaw struggles stem more from results than the process, which bodes well for his future performance against them. His line drive rate topped 20 percent against righties, but checked in at a respectable 17.5 percent against lefties. His walk rate and strikeout rate against lefties were competitive, if not quite as good as his numbers against righties. It all looked a lot like his minor league splits, where at each level, he'd regularly pummel righties, but do a good bit of damage against lefties as well. That .207 batting average on balls in play against lefties looks like the temporary culprit, rather than an inability to hit them.
So far this year, he's 7-for-20 against lefties. But he isn't ready to declare victory just yet.
"It's so early," Rizzo said when I asked about his success against lefties this year. "I think I have 20 at-bats. So. But you've just got to stay with the process, and the process is good, solid at-bats, solid contact meeting the ball. Sometimes, the ball's gonna fall, sometimes it's not. For us lefties hitting lefties, it feels sometimes like when we hit a good line drive against a lefty, of course it gets caught. You know, they're falling more now, that's good."
His new manager, first-year skipper Rick Renteria, didn't see a need to alter Rizzo's mechanics against lefties, either.
"No, I think a lot of the process was there," Renteria said from the dugout during his pregame presser Wednesday morning. "I think what's happening is, he's really bearing down with two strikes. He's trying not to do too much when he falls behind in the count, as opposed to trying to drive the ball like he's in a hitter's count. You just can't do that -- lefties in today's game are very good. They have wipeout pitches. I think you have to take what they give you, and that's what he's basically doing right now."
There's poetic justice in that approach helping Rizzo against lefties, since it echoes the way he approaches his life these days. He's a man on the cusp of something larger, with things like the MTV post, or his recent turn hitting actual meatballs portending not just baseball stardom, but the kind of fame that will put Rizzo on posters in bedrooms all over America. As of right now, he says, he isn't even at the point of getting mobbed wherever he goes in Chicago. He's just a 24-year-old going out with his friends, for just a little bit longer.
"Even without the contract and all that, this is the big leagues," Rizzo said. "It's a lot of fun. We have a great team. We all have a lot of fun up here. It's how we make a living, so we have a lot of fun with it, and try to get better."
About that great team: it hasn't yet manifested itself on the field. Rizzo is ahead of last season's pace, but the Cubs lost Wednesday afternoon to drop to 4-9 on the season. I wondered whether Rizzo felt, as one of only two Cubs signed beyond 2016, particular responsibility for turning the Cubs into winners himself.
"I think I'm in a great position for that, but I don't feel a responsibility for that," Rizzo said. "They signed me, knowing the type of player I am, how I work, and that's exactly what I do. I come to work, do my routine, just do things that put me in a position to succeed. Go out every day and give it my best. And at the end of the day, if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out."
Again, implicit in that answer is Rizzo's understanding, bred from going through what no teenager should, that he can only control what he can control. It makes him perhaps a better risk for the kind of long-term deals teams are signing players to now -- earlier, but without a track record of major league success to serve as impetus. Renteria, who saw Rizzo back in the Padres' organization, sees it as well.
"He has gone through a lot," Renteria said. "I think his perspective, in general, is probably a lot different than most people's. But I think he's just going out there and playing the game, trying to understand what he's capable of doing, and trying to do the best he can.
"Do all those things play a part in how he's molding himself up as a man? Probably."
So his relationship with his parents is stronger than ever, but also different than it would have been. His parents travel often to see him play in Chicago, and on road trips, making the trek from Parkland. Rizzo spends his offseasons there at home, gobbling down his mother's cooking (though also carefully monitoring his nutritional intake), while hitting in the backyard. Dad's usually the batting practice pitcher.
Rizzo also believes his health scare, and the trades, played a part in his decision to sign long-term with the Cubs at such a young age.
"I think just being able to walk around, just knowing I got a fair deal at the time, which I have no problem with," Rizzo said. "You see guys signing big, big deals, and it's great for them, great for the game, I think. But end of the day, I was able to secure myself, my family. After what I've been through, to be able to just go out and play the game, just focus on baseball."
Focus, yes, but with perspective. Rizzo is balancing between the kind of singular effort one needs to master this game, and a lesson that has him grinning from ear to ear as he mentioned to me that he'd get to play against Derek Jeter for the first time in his career later that day.
"He's seemed, for me, to be a little more mature as a person," Renteria said. "Based on the things you spoke of, that he had gone through. But everybody, when you get between the lines, is still maturing, they're still growing, they're still learning what they are as baseball players, as Major League Baseball players. Because it takes time for someone to become a quality major leaguer. And I think he's striding toward that end."
Time is that given, though it's anything but, whenever we think of young prospects, trying to project them as players. Rizzo knows better than to assume it. He's sure having a great time right now, bounding across the clubhouse after we finished talking to put his arm around a teammate, heading to a hitters' meeting. He's working hard -- Rizzo was still hitting in the indoor cage Wednesday morning, long after most of his teammates had finished their pregame efforts.
But Rizzo isn't willing any of the time away, armed with the wisdom it takes most people decades to acquire.
"It's about not taking anything for granted, not just baseball," Rizzo said. "Life. It's an honor to be here at this level. I'm not going to be up here, like, oh, a sorrow story. I'm happy to be here, I worked hard to be up here. I went through some things, but I sit back and think, a lot of people have gone through some adversity at some point in their lives.
"To be honest, it's being able to get up in the morning, be able to walk and brush my teeth. Little things that, when you go to the hospital and see kids who can't do that on their own, it's tough. The little things in life are what I'm most appreciative of on a daily basis."